9.5 Theses Regarding the Need to Learn Biblical Greek

Channing CrislerChanning Crisler, General

There was once a bewildered bible professor who penned 95 theses bemoaning practices within the Catholic Church of his day.  With different concerns and in a smaller version, I offer 9.5 theses regarding the need to learn Biblical Greek.  I do not have time to write 95 theses on this issue (though it could surely be done), but I am concerned enough about the prevailing attitude of many towards biblical languages to pen nine and a half.

For some time I have listened to the anecdotal justification preachers, ministers, and even theologians have given for ignoring a thorough knowledge of biblical Greek.  Some point to that over-zealous seminary student or professor who filled the pulpit one Sunday morning and subsequently filled the air with multiple references to Greek words or tenses.  Others point to certain bible software programs as the technological deliverance from all that tedious language work.  The heartfelt cry is, “See, I don’t need to learn Greek, the software does it for me.”  Still others stereotypically dismiss those who learn and use Biblical Greek as impractical or out of touch with what people really need.  I am only scratching the surface of this kind of banter, but it more than likely sounds familiar.  It raises a fundamental question for anyone who interprets the biblical text, namely “Do I really need to learn Biblical Greek?”  With an eye towards answering just such a question, I offer the following theses.

1. The Greek New Testament is the real New Testament.  As A.T. Robertson plainly put it, “The real New Testament is the Greek New Testament.  The English is simply a translation of the New Testament, not the actual New Testament” (A.T. Robertson, The Minister and His Greek New Testament, 17).  I am thankful that the New Testament has been translated into many different languages, but there is still only one New Testament.

2. We already tried to let someone guard the truth for us. There was a time in the history of Christianity where the “experts” guarded the truth of scripture for the rest of us.  It is generally referred to as the “Dark Ages,” and it was only when the reformers intentionally returned to the biblical languages that light began to dawn on the true meaning of the text.

3. Without knowledge of Greek, you will always be dependent on the decisions of the commentators.  There are an endless amount of interpretive decisions that have to be made when dealing with a text in the original Greek.  If a person does not have a working knowledge of Biblical Greek, he or she will always be dependent on the decisions made by the commentators.

4. Substituting computer software for a knowledge of Greek is like replacing a paintbrush with your finger.  Computer software programs are helpful tools, but they are no substitute for a working knowledge of Greek.  I might be able to run my cursor across a word and learn that it is parsed as a “perfect active indicate,” but what does that even mean?  There is a vast difference between what a person with a working knowledge of Biblical Greek can do with that information and what a person without it can do.  It is similar to the difference between painting with your finger and a paintbrush.  Both paint a picture, but the difference between the clarity and quality of the picture is obvious.

5. Word studies do not equal biblical exegesis. Despite thoughts to the contrary, simply knowing the meaning of a Greek term does not qualify as biblical exegesis.  The meaning of a Greek word must ultimately be understood in the context of the Greek words that surround it rather than a Greek lexicon.  Moreover, word studies are only one part of the exegetical process.

6. God chose 1st Century Koine Greek not 21st Century English.  The historical fact is that God chose to inspire the New Testament through writers who knew 1st Century Koine Greek not 21st Century English.

7. Something is always lost in translation.  This is not to say that those who know Biblical Greek hold an esoteric knowledge of biblical truth.  Nevertheless, they do recognize the number of things that are often times lost in the translation from Greek to English (e.g., repetitive word usage in a single passage and within a single book, middle-passive voice, change in tenses, etc.).

8. You’ll have to slow down.  Reading the New Testament in Greek makes the reader slow down.  You have to think about every word, phrase, and sentence.  To quote Robertson again, “The Greek compels one to pause over each word long enough for it to fertilize the mind with its rich and fructifying energy” (Robertson, The Minister and His Greek New Testament, 21).

9. Big ideas must come from the smallest details of the Greek.  Preachers and theologians are routinely anxious to generalize a piece of text into a big idea.  Yet, that “big idea” will be a colossal mistake if it is not grounded in the smallest details of the Greek text.  As one person put it, “He is no theologian who is not first a grammarian.”

9.5. God’s approved workmen should use the best techniques and tools available to them.  As I get older, I realize how much I want my doctor, dentist, mechanic, etc., to be experts in their fields.  I want them to use the best techniques and tools available.  Should workmen of God be held to a lower standard of expertise?